Acting Out

From Wickepedia Encyclopedia: Acting out is a psychological term meaning to perform an action to express (often unconscious) emotional conflicts. The acting done is usually anti-social and may take the form of acting on the impulses of an addiction (ie. drinking, drug taking or shoplifting) or in a means designed (often unconsciously or semi-consciously) to garner attention (ie. throwing a tantrum or behaving promiscuously).

The action performed is usually destructive to self or others and may inhibit the development of more constructive responses to the feelings. The term is used in sexual addiction treatment, psychotherapy, twelve-step programs, criminology and parenting.

Acting out painful feelings may be contrasted with expressing them in ways more helpful to the sufferer, e.g. by talking out, expressive therapy, psychodrama or mindful awareness of the feelings. Developing the ability to express one’s conflicts safely and constructively is an important part of impulse control, personal development and self-care.  (end quote)

I would like us to think together about the shape that any acting out behavior takes and I would like to suggest that using the language of psychodramatic role theory would be useful in that effort. Some internal conflict, some combination of “do’ and “don’t” builds up like an old fashioned pressure cooker and that emotional energy  pours itself into an activity which if it serves its purpose leads to a release, a “climax’ of sorts, which in turn, depending upon what has happened and the individual’s capacity for self reflection,  often leads to feelings of regret and remorse. It leads to regret because the conflict was not resolved internally prior to the action taken. If the internal conflict had been resolved than the action taken would be in the service of that resolution and would not be acting out. It is important to recognize that acting out is best understood as the result of the person not being able to resolve the conflict.

Why is that understanding important? Because it allows us to frame the experience in terms of role behavior. The internal conflict is not conscious and so from the individual’s point of view the  behavior  “just happened” and is without  explanation.  But  if the behavior is  approached in conversation as a role, it can be deconstructed and examined as a  collaborative effort.  With the regret as a starting  point  the  individual joins his colleague as a co-investigator examining the components of the behavior. In that process the individual moves from the role of “I’ve been a bad boy” (with all the interesting combinations of feelings that come with that role) into the more adult role of researcher. The conduct which previously has been the trigger for scolding (which reinforces the immature acting out role) now becomes something else. With the emotional valence removed it becomes an “object” of study. In a psychodramatic situation, the protagonist might be asked to observe a moment or two of the “re-enactment” and from the adult observer role offer the player in his role some advice that could lead to a more desirable outcome. In a strictly verbal interaction, his colleague might encourage some historical musings on what events had preceded the acting out behavior and thus assist the process of self-reflection. In visual art or physical movement, again deconstructing the  behavior into its components or sub-roles encourages the adult role to be invested in understanding the behavior, thus strengthening and helping to internalize that role in relation to the acting out role. With continued work over time the individual can recognize the cues that set the acting out role in motion and learn how to eliminate those cues and/or design a more constructive role in response to them. In the language of psychodrama constructive and effective role creation combined with self-direction is always the goal.

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